John Willson was among the earliest settlers of Ridgetown, Ontario, when he arrived in 1833. He and his brother Crowell farmed adjacent 100-acre lots just east of the new town. Life was hard on this cold, rocky and forested land; new settlers had to build their own homes and barns, and clear the land for crops. To add to their challenges, the settlers were menaced by bears and wolves.
Years later, Crowell told stories about two of his encounters with Ontario wildlife in an 1882 interview with the New Kent Plaindealer. In his words:
"We could hear the wolves commence howling about sundown from what is now the most populous part of Ridgetown. I was living where Daniel Willson lives now [John's son]. I heard my brother John's hogs squealing in the pen on his place one night in the fall. I roused John; we took a lantern and opened the door. It was a very dark night but by the light we saw a huge bear. It had dragged over the eight rail fence which formed the pen and into the road clearing a heavy 200-pound hog not yet dead. I discharged my gun loaded with fine shot at the bear and killed it. James Simmons was with us and had a gun but it did not go off.
"One year in October I took a job of building a house for Mr. Richard Boothroyd on the sixth concession. I had with me a yoke of oxen and tied them outside the new house I was working on. I slept at night inside, and the wolves became very noisy outside. I was alone and I got on the roof and tried to make noise enough by pounding with an axe to keep off the wolves from the cattle, but at last finding that they would take the cattle in spite of me I took them inside. The wolves howled around the building till daylight in rage and disappointment."
John and Crowell farms were both land grants from the English Crown. For more than 80 years after the end of the American Revolution, the English encouraged settlement in Ontario by giving land to Canadians, Loyalist Americans and English immigrants in 100- and 200-acre parcels. To get the land you had to pay a settlement fee, and swear allegiance to the King. The English plan was to populate Canada with loyal British subjects as a bulwark against any future expansionist ambitions by the United States. Evidently, the plan worked.
John Willson constructed his own home, which he called Sprucehurst, and added to it over the years. It came to be known as the finest residence in Kent County. John's son Daniel lived there as well with his family, and Daniel's daughter Annie Willson was born there in 1870. Annie moved to Chicago after marrying R.J. Bonner in 1894, but she returned to Sprucehurst to have all three of her children. Sprucehurst remained in the Willson family until 1953 when it was sold to the Province of Ontario. The home and adjoining farm became part of the Experimental Farm of the Ridgetown College of Agricultural Technology, and its owner at the time, J. Harold Willson, became Dean of the College.